Honouring the Mother of God – San Maria Maggiore is widely believed to be the most important church dedicated to Mary in Western Christendom. This explains the basilica’s name – St. Mary Major.
MARY’S GREATEST CHURCH
St. Mary Major stands on the highest point of one of ancient Rome’s ‘seven hills’, the Esquiline, and in the very middle of the present-day capital’s busy centre. In the sixteenth century, the ambitious urban renewer Pope Sixtus V (1585–90) made the church the axis of a new series of radial streets, extending like the points of a star to connect with Rome’s other major basilicas. An obelisk, which Sixtus removed from Augustus’ mausoleum, was placed to the rear of the basilica’s apse, and marked the focal point of this urbanist vision. Around the other side, in from of the basilica’s facade, Suxtus’ successor Pope Paul V (1605–21), erected a fifteen-metre-high column surmounted by a beautiful bronze statue of the Virgin and Child. That homage is our exterior preparation for the wealth of tributes to be encountered inside St. Mary Major.
In the course of sixteen centuries all the arts have joined together to glorify this ancient basilica as the house of the Virgin Mary on earth. The church is a jewel box of art treasures of each epoch and style. Classical marble columns divide the nave and side aisles, while Byzantine mosaics glitter with gold in the apse. The main altar is a blaze of gilded bronze and porphyry, balanced by a wealth of other materials – marbles, agates and lapis lazuli – used for the various side altars. The basilica’s architectural and artistic masterpieces, contributed by some of Catholicism’s most powerful Popes, underline one constant theme: the pre-eminence of Mary, Mother of Jesus and true Mother of God.
BASILICA OF SUMMER SNOWS
Even today St. Mary Major is known as the ‘Liberian Basilica’, in honour of Pope Liberius (352–66). According to legend, a miraculous summer snowfall, announced by the Virgin in a dream both to Pope Liberius and to a pious and wealthy Roman couple, who had decided to give all their earthly goods to the Church and needed a specific cause, fell on the night of August 4–5. Following Mary’s instructions, Liberius traced the dimensions of a new basilica in the fallen snow, and there built a church to the Madonna in the year 358.
The legend of ‘Our Lady of the Snows’ can be traced back to an oral tradition in the seventh century, although the miracle was first recorded in writing by Fra Bartolommeo of Trento around 1250. Leaving legend aside, history recounts that Pope Liberius was a firm crusader against the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus in his human person. It is known that in Liberius’ time the Esquiline Hill had been settled by barbarian troops who were largely Arian. By constructing a church to the Virgin Mary, Liberius evidently wished to foster her cult as Mother of God against the spread of Arian beliefs..
Before stepping inside St. Mary Major, the visitor should pass beyond the eighteenth-century facade and mount some stairs to the loggia above the facade. here, guarded by four colossal angels with gilded draperies, a magnificent medieval mosaic recounts the story of the basilica’s foundation. Pope Liberius and the patrician donor Giovanni are peacefully sleeping on a hot summer night, while Christ, enthroned on a blue background studded with golden stars, supervises the Virgin’s apparitions and the miraculous snowfall. The work is signed by Filippo Rusuti, who worked in Rome between the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the fourteenth centuries. Until the eighteenth century, these splendid mosaics graced the church facade and welcomed the countless pilgrims who came to visit Mary’s basilica.
Modern archaeologists now hold that St. Mary Major has nothing to do with Liberius’ church, supposedly built on a different Esquiline site. The disclaimers are based on excavations carried out between 1966 and 1972, which unearthed, six metres below the church pavement, a private first-century Roman villa with a large portico and third-century frescoed calendar scenes.
Nevertheless, the snowfall legend is still very dear to the hearts of the Roman people. Every year on 5 August St. Mary Major celebrates the event with a showering of white flower petals from the ceiling of the nave in front of the high altar. The petals fall down slowly like snowflakes inside the basilica, and after the liturgical service, the faithful rush to the presbytery to collect the scattered petals as tokens of special grace.
Excerpt from Hager, June. Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London), 1999.
We will be going to visit the Basilica of St. Mary Major in our upcoming Journey Toward the Face of Christ pilgrimage this coming May/June 2022.
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